I guess the point of this week’s topic is to show how all photographs contain messages, including political messages. I need to be aware of that, especially in my own work, and also aware of how a viewer is likely to receive those messages. They may be received very differently depending on the context (e.g., in a newspaper or on the wall of an art gallery).
The question of the role of aesthetic choices in this struck me as fascinating. It goes to the heart of the debate over the practice of Sebastãio Salgado (see below). I particularly like Susie Linfield’s approach in her excellent book The Cruel Radiance (Linfield 2010), because she takes a much wider and more forgiving view than either Ingrid Sischy (Sischy 1991) or Susan Sontag (Sontag 2004):
Photographs excel, more than any other form of either art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of global capitalism, or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda, or the solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or agony, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs to discover what our intuitive reactions to such otherness—and to such others—might be. There is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, through emotions (Linfield 2010: 22).
In order words, photographs may be there to change us or to shock us but they also perform many other functions and are interpreted in many other ways. This becomes clear in Linfield’s essays in her book on James Nachtwey and Giles Peress (Linfield 2010). Personally I find Nachtwey’s meticulously composed, distant, almost formal images of suffering much more deeply disturbing than a typical combat photograph. Peress shares some of the same qualities but he is also very effective in suggesting something by showing only its traces. One can see this in his image of a beleaguered Kurdish mountain village. This is apparently normal life among the women and children – but it isn’t normal and both they and we, the viewers, know it. See Figure 1.
The question of traces, the after-the-event, leads on to David Campany’s idea of ‘Late Photography’ in Safety in Numbness (Campany 2003) not least as a niche that the still image can occupy in the face of citizen journalism and instant video news. I do not entirely agree with Campany’s conclusions, however: ‘We may have been able to see the damage afterwards, but at the cost of a sense of removal. Photography was struggling to find a way to reconcile itself with a new position beyond the event. And it was discovering that sombre melancholia was a seductive mode for the still image’ (Campany 2003).
Campany is describing the images of Joel Meyerowitz at Ground Zero in New York, but ‘sombre melancholia’ is only one of a wide range of emotions the still image can arouse. The still image can arouse anger, for example, as in Martha Rosler’s approach to the traces of homelessness in her classic The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (Rosler 1974-5). There is a similar approach to the same subject and its traces in the practice of Leif Claesson (Claesson 2020).
Rosler raises a very good point present in the work of almost all the photographers mentioned this week: ‘Documentary as we know it carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful’ (Rosler 1989: 306). I had not realized how problematic documentary can be, and Rosler’s point feeds right into another question, whether truly shocking images can change anything or, instead, leave the viewer feeling apathetic and helpless. It is clear that this issue has long been widely understood – see for example Berger 2009: 32 – but I am not sure that anyone has found a conclusive answer. What is left are strategies: some work, some don’t.
I do think the strategy of suggestion and traces works, but perhaps that’s just me. It is at least the approach I am taking in my own project. I will show the traces of homelessness, of people, of events, of an uncanny feeling that ‘something happened here’. I think this is more powerful (and more ethical) than showing the thing itself. See Figures 2 and 3.
Finally, the question of aesthetics and the practice of Sebastãio Salgado. Ingrid Sischy makes one very strong point in her appraisal of his work: ‘To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action’ (Sischy 1991: 92). This is spot on, if it genuinely is tragedy. Too much of the rest of her article struck me as a depressing example of the snobbery and elitism of the East Coast arts establishment. It was neither a fair nor an accurate appraisal of Salgado’s work. I much prefer the more subtle and intelligent approach taken by David Levi Strauss in his essay on this subject, particularly ‘Why can’t beauty be a call to action? Being politically correct does not signify much unless the work is both visually and conceptually compelling. To be compelling there must be tension in the work’ (Levi Strauss 2005: 9-10).
This returns us to several things. First it returns us to the qualities of the image itself. Second it suggests that practitioners and artists should be assessed with an open mind on the basis of what they can do, not on what they can’t. Some people are documentarists and perhaps involved in politics, and others simply aren’t. That is not who they are. Salgado strikes me as one of them, someone in love with the visual, the poetic, the mysterious, a bit of a visionary. There is nothing wrong with this.
It is also the case that we live in a consumer culture. Key to reaching an audience is widespread dissemination on TV, social media, in the press and through popular books. Without that audience, no message will get through no matter how worthwhile. Salgado has that audience and reach, as does the Attenborough Life team, for example. The issue is how to work with them and use their platforms of persuasion, not against them. Railing against them will change nothing.
BERGER, John. 2009. About Looking. London: Bloomsbury.
CAMPANY, David. 2003. ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of Late Photography’. In David GREEN (ed.). Where Is the Photograph? Brighton: Photoforum [online]. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [accessed 19 Jan 2020].
CLAESSON, Leif. 2020. ‘The Park’. Leif Claesson [online]. Available at: http://www.leifclaesson.com/the-park [accessed 27 Mar 2020].
LEVI STRAUSS, David. 2005. ‘The Documentary Debate: Aesthetic or Anaesthetic?’. In David LEVI STRAUSS (ed.). Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. New York: Aperture, 3–11.
LINFIELD, Susie. 2010. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press [online]. Available at: https://www.dawsonera.com/guard/protected/dawson.jsp?name=https://shibboleth.falmouth.ac.uk/idp/shibboleth& [accessed 24 Mar 2020].
ROSLER, Martha. c. 1989. ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts on Documentary Photography’. In Richard BOLTON (ed.). The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 303–40.
ROSLER, Martha. 1974-5. ‘The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems’. Whitney Museum of American Art [online]. Available at: https://whitney.org/collection/works/8304 [accessed 24 Mar 2020].
SISCHY, Ingrid. 1991. ‘Good Intentions’. The New Yorker [online]. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/. [accessed 24 Mar 2020].
SONTAG, Susan. 2004. Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin.
Figure 1. Giles PERESS. c. 1980. Mountain Village, Kurdistan.
Figure 2. Leif CLAESSON. Undated. Demolished Tent. From: Parken. Leif Claesson [online]. Available at: http://www.leifclaesson.com/the-park [accessed 02 Mar 2020].
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. Hometown Nights. Collection of the author.